JESSICA JACOBS-WOLDE had known her baby would be coming as soon as she’d woken up, at dawn, even before the slightest pains began. The mound in her belly seemed to have shifted while she’d slept, inching downward to press a little more urgently against her bladder, as though overnight it had crawled steadily toward where it knew it was supposed to be. Not every woman would have noticed, maybe, but Jessica had. It’s time, she had thought. She hadn’t panicked. She’d only asked her mother to fix a special meal to celebrate the occasion. She’d called her sister, Alexis, and told her to bring her appetite and her medical bag. And the mother, her daughters and the old man had sat at the dinner table, eating in silence, simply waiting.
The old man, her mother’s brand-new husband, wasn’t yet privy to their family secret -- he didn’t know about the strangeness pulsing in Jessica’s veins -- so when he’d asked why they were so quiet, Jessica just told him her baby was on the way. She’d said no more because there was nothing more he needed to hear. She could have told him that her baby would not, could not, be an ordinary child. But instead, she’d been silent.
Jessica was used to keeping silent by now.
That was why she was glad her sister, Alexis, was a doctor. When it was time, they had decided, the baby would be born in this house. This was the house Jessica first called home twenty-eight years ago, the first home she’d known. This was the house Jessica had chosen as her sanctuary eight months ago, after the Bad Time, when her dreams melted and her heart died.
Jessica’s husband and daughter were gone, and a big part of her had gone with them. Her husband, David, had simply disappeared, leaving only questions and breath-stealing heartache behind. And poor Kira, her little girl, was buried in a pitifully small plot at Miami Gardens Cemetery five miles away, beside the grandfather she had been born too late to meet. Kira Alexis Wolde had Gone Home to Christ, it said on the granite headstone that marked her five years on this Earth. Jessica’s mother had chosen that inscription, because soon after Jessica discovered her child was dead -- that, in fact, her husband had killed her she hadn’t been able to make many decisions for herself. For hours on end, she had only listened, wondering, to the sound of her own beating heart.
But she’d made a decision about her new baby. Her baby wouldn’t come into the world in a hospital, where both of them would be subjected to tests. Above all, Jessica was afraid of what the doctors would find if they examined their blood. She couldn’t allow any tests, not ever.
She and her baby would be safe with her mother and sister, Jessica knew, and she wondered if this might be the only safe place for them in all the world. For the first time in as long as Jessica could bear to remember, everything was exactly the way it should be.
Except for the pain. She hadn’t expected so much pain.
God...dammit, Jessica said, screaming a curse almost foreign to her lips. That last stab of paralyzing pressure had erased her reluctance to use the Lord’s name in vain, despite all recent indications that God’s touch was very, very real. Too real, sometimes.
Jessica, please, her mother said, her brow in a knot.
Jessica tried to push her pain away, tried to think of anything else. She suddenly heard the theme music for the football game playing from the living room, too loudly. The music enthralled her because her brain was begging for distraction, and her muscles relaxed.
Concentrate, Jessica. You have to push, Alex said.
The Dolphins against the Patriots, the television was trumpeting. Jessica couldn’t remember what city the Patriots were from, but the squall of celebration made it sound like they were battling for possession of the world. She caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror across the room on her closet door, still bearing the Y-100 radio bumper sticker she’d loyally pasted across the top fifteen years ago. For a moment, she was startled to realize she was no longer the same eighth-grader she’d been then; the wiry pigtails were gone, replaced by her mussed crown of short-bobbed hair glistening with perspiration. And her eyes were wild and scared, a way they’d never been then or ever, before this awful year.
The room seemed to be pulling away from her sight, as if she were sinking. Maybe it was all just a dream, she thought, and she felt her chest swell with weak hope.
Hon, are you focusing? You better focus, hear? Don’t make me call 911 and drag you to the hospital. You don’t want that, do you? Then focus. We’re almost there, Alex said.
Because of the voice’s urging and that was all it was to Jessica at this point, a lone disassociated voice Jessica pulled her mind back to the pain. She shrieked, hoarse. She felt like she was pushing a ball of flames through her insides, and she wanted it gone. Her muscles heaved with their own mind, straining so furiously she believed she might fling herself from the bed.
Almost, almost, almost. One more time. One more.
Then, all of the sound was stolen from the room. Just silence. Jessica saw her sister’s lips moving and her mother exhaling slowly, her mole-dotted cheeks puffing because she was nervous, but it was all in a hush. In that glorious instant, even the pain was gone.
It is a dream, Jessica thought with certainty, amazed and grateful. That meant Kira must still be alive. And David had never given her and her new baby this strange blood. David, then, was really just an ordinary man the way she’d believed he was when she married him, not some kind of monster who would kill his own daughter and turn Jessica into.
Jessica felt herself sucked into a tight, dark tunnel. No air. Just blackness. She struggled against the slippery walls for footing, for something to grab with her hands, but she couldn’t find anything familiar. Nothing to hold onto. Helpless terror smothered her thoughts, and she believed she must be screaming, though she could only hear a loud, rhythmic pounding in her ears. And the horrified mantra of her thoughts:
Help me, she thought from deep inside herself, lost in confusion. Oh, God.
Light. Yes, light. Ahead. So, so bright. Am I dead?
Push, a muffled voice said from somewhere.
Help me, God.
Then, the world exploded into colors, sounds and smells. Jessica closed her eyes against the light, which burned like the core of the sun. Oxygen smacked her face and skin, making her limbs tremble in the cold air. She had never been so cold.
I got her! Jess, I got her, hon.
Yes. Breathe. Safe.
Jessica felt herself submersed in a giddy relief. The terror that was so real before, so engulfing, was forgotten. She was safe. Finally. Her relief was so great, she began to laugh, a boundless laughter from a place she did not know.
A dream. Yes, it had all just been a horrible, unspeakable dream.
But a voice interrupted her laughter, like wind breaking a mist.
Thank you, Jesus, Jessica’s mother was saying in a whispered vibrato, squeezing her hand. Oh, we do thank you, Lord Jesus. Please bless this child. Lord, bless this baby girl.
The pain suddenly returned, but it was less raw. A faraway voice inside Jessica told her that the pain didn’t matter because by morning, her body would have repaired itself of the birthing tears. The blood David had given her would fix everything. Always.
Jessica’s essence began to seep slowly into her pores, bringing other small enlightenments. She blinked, staring at everything in front of her as if she was a stranger to herself. Again, she saw the faded Y-100 sticker on the mirror. In the reflection, she saw her legs raised before her in the stirrups Alex had fitted to the bed. Fascinated, Jessica watched her sister grasp a pair of scissors, which glinted from the yellow petal-shaped lamp on the night-stand, the same lamp that had been in Jessica’s room nearly all her life.
Is this a dream? Jessica asked, surprising herself with the huskiness in her voice. For some reason, she had expected to sound like a little girl, a young child.
No, child, it’s no dream, her mother said, pressing her warm, steady palm against Jessica’s forehead. Her voice sounded heavy, bittersweet, because Jessica knew she wished with all her heart she could say Yes, child, all of this strangeness was in your head, and everything is back like it was. You have a baby girl. She’s your little miracle, Jessica. Forever. Remember that, hear?
Let me see her, Jessica said, blinking to stanch her hot tears. Some of the tears were from her joy at being a mother again, but most of them were for Kira and David and the part of her that wanted so badly to be dreaming.
Through her tears, all Jessica could see of her baby was a slick little curled fist; like a porcelain doll’s fist, or an impossibly small old woman’s. Jessica heard a small sound from the baby. Not crying, exactly maybe gurgling would describe it best but it was a reassurance that she was alive, that there was air in her tiny lungs. She was breathing. She was safe.
She’s beautiful, her mother’s voice said.
Why is she so small? Let me see, Jessica said, lifting her head from the drenched pillow.
She’s just a little underweight, hon. She’s fine, Alex said.
Jessica wanted to feel the warmth of her child’s loose-fitting skin, count her digits, wipe away the glistening fluids from the placenta, bundle her in a blanket to shut out the cold. But she did none of those things because she was lost inside the softness of her new daughter’s wide-open brown eyes. Had Kira begun her life with such clear, seeing, open eyes?
Rooted to Jessica’s gaze, the naked, tawny-skinned child made a sound again, more loudly this time, and Jessica’s world, once again, rocked to a halt.
The baby was laughing. Still wet from the womb, the child was laughing in peals as delicate as strings of spun glass. Whether it was because of exhaustion or something she didn’t dare name, Jessica felt the joints at her elbows, shoulders and knees trembling violently where she lay.
She understood now why she’d thought she was dreaming during the birth: Somewhere, somehow, this baby had tangled its little mind with hers, like a vine strangling the trunk of a tree. For crucial, awesome moments, Jessica had not been herself she had been her own infant, struggling toward the light.
What in the name of Sweet Jesus had David’s blood done to this child?
In the living room, the television announcers said the Dolphins had recovered a fumble. Through the house’s open windows, Jessica could hear the roar of thousands of nearby strangers cheering as if the skies had opened to reveal the kingdom of God.
©2001 by Tananarive Due